Malformations of the human species
The news that former criminology and psychology student, and convicted animal-torturer, Karla Bourque was released from prison last week is unsettling news. Kayla Bourque was convicted of cruelty towards animals and sentenced to eight months in prison, six of which she had already served. The judge in the case gave her the extra two months so that a long list of complex parole conditions could be prepared. These parole conditions included a ban on owning knives, needles or duct tape.
It raises challenging questions: this is a woman who has admitted wanting to kill homeless people, and who has shown to take pleasure in torturing her family pets, so why is she being released from prison after serving just eight-months, and what can be done about it? How do we protect ourselves and our communities against people who feel no remorse for their actions, and experience none of the moral constraints that prevent them from committing terrible crimes?
This story strikes a nerve with me because my 2011 book The Vanishing Track is about a male version of Ms. Bourque. In this mystery novel, set in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a young man named Shawn Livingstone graduates from juvenile delinquency to torturing and killing animals, stealing cars, burning down a neighbourhood grocery store to stalking and killing the homeless. Sean is a psychopath – a human abomination incapable of feeling the most basic emotion: empathy – and that makes him capable of committing the most heinous crimes without feeling any remorse. He, like all psychopaths, is intelligent and superficially charming, but he lacks the ability to feel. He can mimic normal human emotions, but as Dr. Richard Hare of the University of British Columbia, and the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, says “he knows the words but not the music.”
I don’t know if Kayla Bourque is a psychopath, but the odds are in favour of it. Dr. Hare has developed the standard model for assessing this severe form of mental deviation. It’s called the Hare Phychopathy Checklist and it includes two main categories: personality “aggressive narcissism” and case history “socially deviant lifestyle.” Under the first category are behaviours such as having a grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying and the failure to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. In the second category are historical habitats such as a need for constant stimulation and tendency to experience boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural control and juvenile delinquency. Twenty questions in all, the checklist is administered by a trained professional and each of the twenty categories is scored on a scale of 0-2 (zero meaning no evidence of the trait is displayed, 1 meaning there is a partial match and 2 if there is a reasonably good match). The maximum score is forty; different administrators have varying thresholds for the label psychopath but it is usually in the range of 25-30.
Screenings of the general population using Hare’s checklist suggested that around 1% of the people in North America are potentially psychopaths. One in a hundred people demonstrate the behavioural or historical traits of psychopathy. Not all psychopaths turn to criminal behaviour: in fact Dr. Hare, along with Paul Babiak, wrote a fascinating book about what many psychopaths end up doing called Snakes in Suits: when Psychopaths go to Work. Think about the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the lack of remorse shown for the suffering that caused and you’ll understand Hare and Babiak’s thesis.
Many psychopathic individuals are content to live non-violent lives, but they are almost never without victims. Some male psychopaths express their parasitic tendencies through casual and exploitive sexual relationships; others prey on families and associates through petty crimes or mental, financial or emotional abuse.
The cause of phychopothy is not known: researchers speculate that a chemical imbalance between testosterone and cortisol may be to blame; others suggest environmental factors such as abuse during childhood while others say poor socioeconomic status might be a factor. No one has yet stated categorically that there is a definitive cause.
Psychopaths are gross malformation of the human species; so like us in so many ways, but lacking the moral fibre that we associate with humanity, and therefore not quite fully human.
There is no cure. One psychologist who spoke with the troubled Ms. Bourque before she was released said that the young woman will likely require supervision for the rest of her life.
Ms. Bourque has admitted to wanting to kill people, and is intelligent enough to study criminology at Simon Fraser University to learn how to do it in a manner that she will not be caught. Consequences have little meaning to psychopaths: they don’t fear being caught because they will be punished; they fear being caught because it will spoil the fun.
It was only Ms. Bourque’s inflated ego that led her to being arrested: she bragged about her cunning to a fellow student who called the police.
The question remains: what do we do with people like Ms. Bourque? She hasn’t yet committed a crime that warrants locking her up for the rest of her life, but obviously the judge in this case feels that she is likely to re-offend or he wouldn’t’ have imposed such strict probation. Our judicial system prevents us from locking Ms. Bourque and others like her up for crimes she has yet to commit, and monitoring her behaviour for the rest of her life will be a costly and human-resource consuming operation for police and social service providers. If we don’t watch her she will almost certainly commit additional crimes. And what do we do with all of the others?
There is no easy answer. I’m open to your ideas:
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